Robert Montgomery Bird came to prominence as an American dramatist and novelist during the 1830s, and his career as a creative writer more or less begins and ends with the boundaries of that decade. His plays met with popular and critical acclaim, and after he turned from plays to novels in 1837, his South American historical romances were praised by Edgar Allen Poe among other reviewers. Bird’s contemporaries viewed him as a significant literary figure, but this view of his literary importance has not lasted. Nonetheless, his work retains historical significance despite his almost complete neglect by modern readers: he offers close and perceptive depictions of both the American cultural and physical landscape of the 1830s. Bird was also a gifted watercolour artist, and produced a perceptive and seemingly sympathetic series of portraits of American Indians. He also made an intriguing use of pre-Freudian notions of psychological motives and disorders, and occasionally, sharp-edged social satire. Prone as a novelist to what strikes modern tastes as excessive melodrama and stilted dialogue, he can still be read profitably for his historical details, and his life offers insights into the nature of the American literary scene and the nature of authorship in his time.
Bird was born to relative wealth in New Castle, Delaware, on February 5, 1806. After his father died bankrupt in 1810, the family struggled however, and in 1818, twelve-year old Robert went to live in the home of his uncle, Nicholas Van Dyke while his mother and older brother went to live in Philadelphia. His uncle was a strong disciplinarian, and Robert soon sought escape in reading, verse-writing, and music. In 1820 at 14, Bird moved to Philadelphia to rejoin his mother, by then remarried and widowed a second time. In Philadelphia, Bird acquired several other interests and talents, drawing (Bird produced some excellent, realistic drawings of American Indians in later life), and medicine and science in particular, with the latter two interests reflected in the “abnormal psychology” of many of his fictional or dramatic characters. After graduating from Philadelphia’s Germantown Academy, Bird attended the Medical School at the University of Pennsylvania, and was awarded his M.D. in 1827. Although successful in the purely medical sense as a physician, Bird often charged no fee for his services, and abandoned his medical career after a year.
By this time, he had already been writing for some years, including poetry, prose, and drama, and had published seven pieces in The Philadelphia Monthly Magazine. It was not until 1830 with the publication of his play Pelopidas that he found any financial or critical success, when that play brought him a prize of $1,000 from the famous dramatic actor and producer Edwin Forrest (although Forrest never actually produced it as a play). Pelopidas depicted the Theban revolution led by the titular character against the Spartan dictators who have taken control of Thebes. This began a professional relationship between the two men that saw Bird earning three more prizes from Forrest, 1831’s for The Gladiator, 1832’s Oralloossa: Son of the Incas, and 1834’s The Broker of Bogota. These were the three important plays of Bird’s career in drama.
The Gladiator, a Roman historical tragedy featuring the rebellious gladiator Spartacus, was an immensely popular play. Curtis Dahl, one of Bird’s only biographers, notes that it was produced for over seventy years following its 1831 debut, and had been performed over one thousand times by 1854, the first English language play to be performed so often within the lifetime of its author. The Gladiator was one of the greatest successes of the American dramatic theatre, perhaps due to its theme of a common man rebelling against tyranny: Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 film Spartacus, about the same subject although unconnected to Bird’s manuscript, met with similar popular acclaim and four Oscars. Ironically, although The Gladiator is fiercely anti-slavery in terms of the Thracian rebels, Bird repeatedly depicts Negro slaves in his other works as violent savages who can only prosper under the control of white man. Despite its flaws, the play can be seen as Bird’s greatest popular success.
Bird’s next play, 1832’s Oralloossa: Son of the Incas , centred on the Spanish conquest of Peru, and featured not only the Indian-Spaniard conflict, but also conflicts between different factions within each of those sides. Oralloosa lacked the better-known context of Roman history however, featured very few likable characters, and its convoluted treatment of factional and ethnic strife obscured its thematic elements, depending instead for its effects on elaborate (and expensive) scenery, sets, and stage costuming. After a successful opening run, Forrest rarely produced the play as part of his repertoire.
1834’s The Broker of Bogota drastically reduced the sweeping historical scope of his two previous plays, focusing instead on the tragedies of a single family, that of the middle-class moneylender Febro. In terms of technical skill, it is considered Bird’s best drama, with tighter characterization and action clearly derived from that characterization as Dahl notes. Febro’s son Ramon is tempted into theft by the villainous Caberero, and his daughter Leonor secretly elopes with an unknown suitor. Although Leonor’s suitor ultimately turns out to be the wealthy and eligible son of the Viceroy, Ramon has already killed himself and Febro has subsequently died. Unlike Oralloosa, Forrest kept this play in his repertoire for many years, although it never achieved the popular acclaim of The Gladiator.
During this time, the American dramatist had no copyright protection for his work, and Forrest and Bird quarrelled over money in 1837 (perhaps prompted by Bird’s new bride Mary Mayer and her greater sense of finance) with each insisting they were owed money by the other. Regardless of who was right according to the laws of the time, it was undeniable that Forrest had made many thousand dollars from Bird’s plays, while Bird had received only one thousand dollars per play and two thousand dollars as a loan (which Bird considered an advance on payment due) from Forrest. Bird had never insisted on a written contract with Forrest, and he paid the usual price for that sort of oversight. Bird’s son Frederick Mayer Bird was born in 1838, and with a family now to support, Bird turned away entirely from playwriting to novels in hopes of finding greater financial compensation for his efforts.
Despite their later falling-out, during their time as collaborators Bird and Forrest had travelled quite widely together, including trips to Niagara Falls, Maine, Virginia, Charleston down to New Orleans, Tennessee, Kentucky, and New England. These trips would considerably influence Bird’s later novels. During the period of his playwriting success, Bird was already writing novels, and it was as a novelist that he would arguably achieve his greatest fame. Bird published his first novel in 1834, Calavar: or, the Knight of the Conquest; A Romance of Mexico, and quickly followed up this historical Aztec “romance” with a sequel, 1835’s The Infidel: or the Fall of Mexico. Calavar recounts the beginning of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, centring on protagonists Calavar, a knight of St. John, and his nephew Amador, along with a rather convoluted plot involving a girl disguised as a boy who turns out to be both the daughter of Calavar’s lost love as well as Amador’s current lost love. Critics reviewed the novel very favourably, in particular noting that Bird had chosen a new and largely unexplored historical time frame and geographic location. The Infidel continues the story of the conquest of Mexico, with a similarly entangled web of relatives and lovers, this time in a pronouncedly Gothic style, to the extent of near incest between protagonist Juan Lerma and his long-lost twin sister Infeliz. Although critics have always noted Bird’s stilted dialogue as a weakness, his action scenes have been praised by Edgar Allen Poe among others.
Bird turned back to North America with his third novel, 1835’s The Hawks of Hawk Hollow, set in the Delaware Water Gap, and then with 1836’s Sheppard Lee: Written by Himself and 1837’s Nick of the Woods: or, The Jibbenainosay. The Hawks of Hawk Hollow deals with the Gilbert family, Revolutionary War royalists driven off the land into life as fearsome outlaws. Hawks involves a Colonel Falconer who claims the lost Gilbert estates, unknown Gilbert relatives, disguised children, and false accusations of murder, in a mixture too complex to briefly summarize, and ends with disguised Gilbert heir Hyland, the painter protagonist, reclaiming the Gilbert estate. The latter two novels illustrate Bird’s medical background and continuing interest in human psychology.
Sheppard Lee is notable for its use of the idea of metempsychosis, or transference of the soul, to satirize Northern and Southern aristocracy, as the title character transplants himself from body to body. Sheppard Lee, the young protagonist, falls into a trance and enters in succession, the dead body of a rich Philadelphian, a young dandy, an old miser, a Quaker, a African-American slave, a bored idler overly fond of food, and finally, through a twist of plot, back into his own mummified body at a German doctor’s science show. He then runs home, and subsequently awakens to find that he has been in a coma since his initial trance, and his subsequent adventures were merely hallucinations. While Sheppard Lee is in the body of the slave Tom, Bird apparently in all seriousness, shows Tom and his fellow slaves becoming enraged into murderous rebellion by an abolitionist pamphlet and has the young white daughters of Tom’s master hurl themselves to their death from the roof rather than surrender their virtue to the revolting slaves.
In a similar fashion, Nick of the Woods offers a pointedly hostile depiction of Shawnee Indians as drunken murderers and a titular character who is a Quaker survivor of an Indian massacre whose resulting split personality offers him the dual role as Nick, the terrifying Indian killer of the Kentucky frontier. In the subsequent 1852-3 revision of the novel, Bird somewhat defensively argues that his Indian characters cleave more closely to the true and savage nature of the American Indian than those of James Fenimore Cooper and other writers because they idealize and romanticize their Indians and ignore their allegedly inferior racial characteristics. Nick was also Bird’s most financially successful novel. Bird was to finish only one other novel after Nick of the Woods, 1839’s The Adventures of Robin Day, a novel of picaresque adventure. In 1838, he collected two volumes of shorter works into Peter Pilgrim; or, A Rambler’s Recollections.
Like almost every other American writer of the period, Bird found it very difficult to make a living as either a writer of fiction or drama. To do so, Bird turned instead to magazines. He had published an 1834 article in the American Monthly Magazine, and continued to publish in a small way through 1836, when Thomas G. Clarke, a Philadelphia publisher, offered to establish a new Philadelphia literary magazine with Bird as the primary editor. Before that offer was finalized however, Charles Fenno Hoffman offered Bird the Philadelphia editorship of the American Monthly Magazine. Bird accepted the offer early in 1837, but was forced to resign his editorial duties due to ill health the following fall. Bird turned from periodicals to farming, but failed there as well, although rural life allowed him to regain his health. He turned next to teaching at Pennsylvania Medical College, and was popular with students, but lost this job when the College disbanded in 1843. An 1843 attempt to move into politics as a Whig nominee for Congress (against his wife’s advice) proved fruitless, and Bird turned from running for election to seeking a patronage job at the Smithsonian Institution. When a more influential candidate won this position, Bird turned back to journalism in 1847, buying a third interest in the North American and United States Gazette. Bird’s partners proved useless, and Bird took on all the editorial and managerial work, making the Gazette successful and influential, working up to seventeen-hour days. Late in 1853, Robert Montgomery Bird fell ill. He died on January 23, 1854, at the age of forty-eight.